It is hard to believe that the Creator of our universe with its billions of galaxies could have sent Himself to this little blue blip not so long ago in the form of an infant born to a virgin, to be first worshiped by illiterate shepherds where He lay in a feed trough, livestock peering down at Him, Eastern potentates following a star to the site. But here we are again, singing those songs, so we shall see.
My mother loved Christmas with her whole heart. With six children and no credit cards and my father ever watchful for unnecessary expense, Christmas was a mountain for Grace to climb, requiring endurance, planning, stealth and skill, but she brought it off to perfection every year, until she was in her 90s and then she coasted on her memories.
Her mother died when my mother was 7 and Mother had no memory of her, which troubled her deeply. She looked at photos of her mother, tall, haggard, from the early 1920s, and tried to dredge up some recollection, anything at all, the sound of her voice, what she cooked, what her hand felt like.
Grace was third from the end of 11 children, the 12th having died with the mother, of scarlet fever, and Grace was raised by her older sisters, Marian and Ruby and Margaret. Complaint was not encouraged in that family, and mental health was not a topic for discussion, but clearly Christmas was a shining moment of gaiety in a family of modest means and strict decorum.
When I was 19, my older brother asked me to look after his house over Christmas so he and his young family could drive out to New York for a week. His house was in the woods and I, intoxicated by Thoreau at the time, was more dramatic than necessary and announced that I would spend Christmas alone out there “to figure things out.” A poem of mine got in the college literary magazine, with the lines:
The ice is thin and deep is the dark
Below, green lights in the trees and red,
Winding my way into the winter mist.
Coat open and the silver blades are sharp
And that long long bend ahead
Will take me out and away from you and all of this.
Which was about skating but a girl I knew thought it was suicidal and she came out to the woods to visit me and bring me dinner from her mother – turkey, candied yams, cranberry, in tinfoil. We lit candles and sat and meditated on the mystery of life, and it was pleasant to have someone be so concerned about my well-being. At the time, I thought of suicide as poetic, an artistic choice stemming from great emotional depths. Two months later, her boyfriend Leeds was killed when a drunken driver pulled out of a parking lot and into his mother’s car coming back home from a play at the Guthrie Theater. Twenty-some years later, sunk in depression, my friend filled her pockets with rocks and paddled a canoe out to the middle of a lake and capsized it and drowned.
Life is good. On a winter night, looking into a fire, our dead are around us, testifying to that. The books on the shelves, the young people around the table, the carols on the radio in the kitchen, the shining snow on the hill that looks out at the Mississippi River.
As you get old, you gain a stripped-down life, minus the clutter and hullabaloo, the excess food and alcohol, the meaningless gifts, and it is quite satisfying to sit with your true love in candlelight, a plate of cookies on the table, and let memories come and go. My mother is there. It’s 6 a.m., still dark out, and I’ve come down the stairs in my pajamas to the darkened tree, a note from Santa, the crumbs of the gingersnap I left for him, and I hear the padding of bare feet on the stair, and suddenly the tree bursts into light, and my mother is standing there in a raggedy robe. She missed her dead mother and found her every year in making Christmas for us.
Even after she moved to Florida, she flew back for a proper Minnesota Christmas with frost on the windows and wind in the chimney. What you do for children is never wasted: This Christmas will live on and nourish them long after you have faded away.
Garrison Keillor is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.